Read history

The plaster castings from Pompeii are a haunting reminder of past disasters and difficulties.  May 2008

Plaster castings at Pompeii, a haunting reminder of past disasters and difficulties. May 2008

“If you think you have it tough, read history books.” — Bill Maher

I’m no fan of Bill Maher, but he has a point about history.  It’s a great way to gain some perspective.  Not long ago I read Bill Bryson’s fascinating book At Home, and I realized I’d never fully appreciated such things as electricity and sewer systems.  From relatively trivial blessings such as comfortable furniture, to life saving improvements such as modern medicine, we are fortunate to be living in today’s world.

A couple of years ago our son gave us the DVD set of the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough.  The gruesome scenes of very early (and thus quite risky) smallpox vaccinations, or the equally sobering portrayal of the Adams’ daughter’s breast cancer surgery, done without benefit of anesthesia, offer graphic reminders that even the prominent and privileged of past centuries had a far less easy life than the average person today.

Look around you and notice how many things in your environment were not readily available to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  Aside from the endless digital and electronic devices that we increasingly depend on as necessities, there are slightly older but no less essential comforts such as air conditioning, spacious kitchens, bathrooms and closets, and abundant, affordable choices in everything from clothing to housewares to groceries and fresh produce.

It’s easy to romanticize the past, but reading one of the many popular books by gifted historians such as McCullough, William Manchester or Barbara Tuchman will be an eye-opening experience that will leave you thankful for being who you are, where you are, and when you are.  Besides, even the history books themselves are better now!

22 Comments

  1. Loved this article. And couldn’t think of a better quote to introduce the post!

    • Thanks Virginia, I am so happy you like the post. I always find myself feeling fortunate after reading history!

  2. Mike Bertoglio

    Great point and have not read the Adam’s books. Do you think future generations will look back and think we lived very crude and tough lives? Hopefully, by then some of the medical maladies we suffer from will be defeated. Mark Twains essay- “Letters from the Earth” also reminds us of how things were- after he lost three children? to small pox.

    • Hi Mike, YES I do think future generations (assuming the earth lasts that long) will look on much of our medicine as very crude, especially such treatments as chemotherapy, that sometimes do as much harm as good. I always think with amusement on the Star Trek references to barbaric “20th Century medicine.” 🙂 I honestly think chemo will someday seem kind of like leeches seem to us. Considering some of the amazing advances on the horizon in generating patients’ own replacements for such things as heart valves and lost teeth, I think it’s entirely possible that much of what is done by today’s physicians will eventually be radically changed. In other respects of life, I’m not so sure; I think it’s also possible that those of us who have 3 or 4 family cars, or live in large, palatial homes, will be seen much as we now look back on the old landed barons of past centuries. As material things such as paper record keeping, landline phones, books and games are replaced by digital versions, life is becoming more and more portable, and for a variety of reasons, I think that what we think of as “home” will change almost beyond recognition in future centuries. As always, some changes will be good, and some will seem sad, regrettable or at least dubious to old timers.

  3. Sometimes I think I might have liked to live in a different time and then I see a fashion magazine from that time or I sweat a tiny bit running the vacuum and I am REALLY glad to live now. Nice post. Hope you are alright. Love ya.

    • I used to always have romantic ideas about the past, but one very hot muggy summer day when I was visiting Maggie we went to Mt. Vernon and I could not imagine living back then and wearing all those clothes in that heat and humidity. It made me think twice about what the past was REALLY like!

  4. Carlyle

    June 30 ” 60 Minutes” featured the historic work of McCullough. Very impressive!

    • Dad, thanks for letting me know about this – I found it online and will watch it. I first read McCullough’s biography of Truman. I didn’t think I would find it interesting, but it was one of the few unabridged audiobooks I had available to me at that time. I was astounded by what an engaging writer McCullough was. He took a subject I wasn’t particularly interested in and brought it to life.

  5. Good reminder!
    When our power goes out for a few days each winter I’m newly grateful for hot water and lights each time! 😉

    • I think it’s good for us to have these unexpected breaks in service. We take so many things for granted and it’s much easier to be grateful after we get our awareness raised a bit!

  6. Sheila

    Julia, as I was reading your blog this morning, we lost power in our house for a few minutes. It was just one of those storm things. I’m always amazed at all the electronic sounds and blinking clocks, etc. that come back on after an outage. In this world of such grandiose lifestyles and extravagance, I ask myself if this is the pursuit of happiness? I suppose “Tell me about the good old days” happens to all of us. I so hope all is well with you, your family and Pasha. Thinking of you with a prayer,Sheila

    • Hi Sheila, I sent you an email, but you must not have gotten it. Our sweet Pasha left us Sunday morning. When we got up his breathing was very labored and I knew he was near death. I had told Jeff that if he was not better by the time I got home from church, we would have to find a vet who could euthanize him on a Sunday because I hated to see him not breathing easily. A few minutes later he was gone. We buried him just inside our picket fence, beside the camellias, where we can see his grave from our windows. We miss him terribly. I know you understand! Yes, we do live amazingly extravagant lifestyles in so many ways. Just the number of choices we have, in everything from shampoos to cereals to cars to beverages, is staggering. I read somewhere that we have so many decisions to make about such things that it becomes stressful for us. I believe it! Still, I am thankful. I’ll have to go back and check my email to see if I sent it to the right place. Thanks for your prayers! It seems we are traveling the same road once again.

      • Sheila

        Oh,no! I’m so sorry that I didn’t receive the email. In his own way, Pasha gave y’all a final gift of love by going naturally. Run across that Rainbow Bridge,sweet Pasha… And give our love and hugs to Salty! Love, Sheila

        • Sheila, I agree. Pasha was with us less than an hour after we got up Sunday morning, and Jeff said “I think he waited all night so he could see us one last time before he went.” I felt that he was right about that. In fact, when I got up that morning and saw Pasha having labored breathing, I put my hands under his face as I used to do when I would scratch him beneath his jaw (he loved that) and looked him in the eyes (I was crying) and said “Pasha, if you need us to help you die, we will help you. I don’t want you to suffer.” It’s like I gave him permission to leave or something because just a few minutes after that he took his last breath. Of course, I know some would say I am crazy to think he understood what I was saying, but on some level I think our four-legged family members do understand much of what we feel. In any case, it’s comforting to think so. I hope Pasha and Salty are in a field somewhere, running as much as they want and not getting tired :-).

  7. merry

    I’m not fond of the “good old days”.~/ I’m fond Central heat & air condition and other modern conveniences. :~}
    I’ve read McCullough’s biography of Truman and John Adams. Several other historical books. He is a gifted writer.

    • Yes, I feel the same way – thought I do admit to very fond memories of times before central air conditioning, when it would be cool at night and Mama would turn on the attic fan and wonderful cool breezes would come in through all the windows! Thanks for being here!

      • And I loved McCullough’s biography of Truman. I was amazed how interesting it was.

  8. Sheila

    Julia, Pasha would want you to be comforted and know your “send off” was the perfect way to say your goodbye. It gets easier to remember them and all the happiness they brought to us. I cried for your loss, when I learned about Pasha. I just care so deeply for my friends.
    Love, Sheila

    • Thank you Sheila! It does help to have the kind sympathy of friends who have been there and understand how it feels.

  9. I would not have been a very good settler at all. I don’t mind hard work but seeing how little my great Grandparents had is sobering to say the least. Both past away mid-life, probably working themselves into the grave. Maybe there’s too much choice now, making it easy to forget what hardship really is. Thanks for putting it in perspective, great post Julia.

    • Thanks, I’m the same; I would not have lasted long as a pioneer, I’m afraid. It’s not just the hard work, but so many other hardships. Those who traveled any distance or moved away had very little way to stay in touch with family; no antibiotics when their babies were sick, hardly any books, on and on I could go…we owe a great deal to the strength and perseverance of our ancestors. I often wonder if future generations will think ours had it too hard or too easy?

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